Beware corporate culture

The report on the dysfunctional management culture at NASA that contributed to the destruction of the shuttle Columbia shows that corporate culture can be a killer, literally.

It would be great if all companies and organizations used this opportunity to stop and ask themselves if they have cultural practices that are crippling their ability to function. I doubt that’s happening much. While many managers are going “tsk, tsk” about NASA’s problems, if asked about themselves most would probably react: “What? Us? No way!” That’s the nature of culture: you’re so much a part of it you can’t see it, especially if confronting it would make people uncomfortable.

Everyone who has worked in a big organization knows corporate culture is usually Janus-faced: it has both good and bad aspects. It can be a source of enthusiasm for corporate mission, inspiration for good products and services, and support for aspirations of members. But all too often organizational culture has a counterproductive side. At it’s worst culture can stifle confrontation with the truth, commitment to excellence, innovative thinking, and vital communication. It can drain away energy and motivation.

For most workers, it seems to me, the hard part of organizational life isn’t the 3-inch thick manual of policies and procedures, it’s the unwritten and unspoken norms that have to be learned and observed to succeed. The stifling things are groupthink, the things everybody knows but nobody says, the people only referred to as “you know who,” and the proverbial elephants in the room.

Not many organizational culture fiascos are as violent, as spectacular or as tragic as what happened at NASA. But all organizations need a counter to the inertia that culture can engender. Initiatives like the FI Center and, hopefully, the FI Space can make a contribution by representing commitment to innovation, to creative thinking, and to acceptance of different perspectives.

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